Mono Lake is one of the locations in the Eastern Sierra that is well known and it should be, because it's existed for over one million years. Today, the lake is located just outside the town of Lee Vining, California, and is easily accessible from Highway 395. Mono Lake is unique for innumerable reasons - it is 2.5 times as salty as the Pacific Ocean; it is home to the Mono Lake Brine Shrimp; it provides a needed spot for migratory birds, and it has a rich place in geologic and human history. Despite all of these amazing things, the main attraction at Mono Lake are and has been its tufas. A tufa is an otherwordly looking phantasmagorical tower of rock. Specifically, tufa or tufas are limestone towers, formed by the precipitation of carbonate materials in water. In Mono Lake, underwater springs rich with calcium have come in contact with lakewater rich with carbonates for hundreds of thousands of years; and the end chemical reaction is the slow growth of these limestone towers that only form underwater. Some of these tufa towers can grow up to thirty feet in height, which occurs over a great period of time. While the tufas have existed for quite a bit of time, they weren't as visible to the public until some of the water in Mono Lake was diverted in 1941. Today, the tufas in the lake are quite visible, especially after three years of drought in California.
Even though the tufas are more visible than ever, the best place to view them is from the South Tufa Trail, which is located on the south side of Mono Lake, and is an easily accessible one mile roundtrip hike.
Directions: The South Tufa Trail and parking area are located immediately off of East Highway 120. From Highway 395, the East 120 is located five miles south of Lee Vining. The South Tufa Trail is located five miles east of the Highway 120/Highway 395 junction, and is well signed. The trail leaves from the parking area, and meanders a half mile through some now landlocked tufas, before arriving at the edge of Mono Lake, where plenty of tufas - in the water - and out of the water can be seen. This is a great spot to get up and close with the lake, the tufas, and it has great views of the surrounding area, including the Sierra Nevada range to the West. The trail features a number of interpretive signs, which has great information about lake levels since 1941, and is also the site of a number of interpretive talks throughout the day during the summer months. While the trail itself is only one mile roundtrip, this is also a great area to explore around, and depending on how much of the lake shore a visitor wants to see, could be a much longer hike.
Tips: In the winter, assuming that enough snow is present, this is a great area for cross country skiing. Irrespective of whether there is snow, this is the premier spot for tufa viewing, and is a great spot for photography year-round.